My wife is a patient and indulding woman. When I asked if we could drive a couple hundred miles out of the way on a weekend trip to visit a Christmas store, she didn’t hesitate. She wasn’t happy, but she said yes without pause. I love her — I also know this sacrifice won’t be quickly forgiven or forgotten.
What took me 200 miles out of our way on a two-day trip was a chance to visit Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland. And it’s supposed to be capitalized that way. We’ll get to that.
It’s a store. It’s a mega store. It’s a CHRISTMAS mega store. Here’s how their website puts it:
Believe me when I say the ad far, far undersells this place. It’s a kind of legend among those like me who care far too much. It stands out both for its sheer size and for the variety of Christmas crap it’s rumored to sell. I’ve wanted to go here for years, but circumstances never worked out even though I’m generally midwestern enough to get to that part of Michigan easily. It was a dream come true.
It was also like voluntarily visiting a childhood nightmare.
Let me set the stage. If you visit, you have to pass through Frankenmuth, Michigan, which is the kind of European town you can only get in America. Frankenmuth is one of those places that probably really did have German immigrants a century or so ago.
But probably in the 50’s or 60’s, someone decided that the locals could make money if they started selling bratwurst, beer, and apple pie (that they’d call “German”). And every few years, someone else would decorate their store in fake “German” charm, not really caring if it was more Austrian or Swiss or even Polish because, hell, it’s the US and no one knows. So here we are half a century later, and the town is nothing but fake German store fronts and “European” knick knack stores. The whole thing has the vibe of a cheap Disney knock-off, like the part of the Magic Kingdom that’s supposed to be all “fairy tale” and semi-old world European.
Point is, when you’re getting to Bronner’s you pass through that weird American thing that’s at once the LEAST authentic version of what it’s trying to look like while, at the same, being the MOST authentic American thing you can imagine. It’s dizzying. It gives you heartburn. And you just can’t stop buying more and more crap as you walk around.
So by the time we got to Bronner’s, I was already in a mood where I was kind of primed for the whole experience to be an anticlimactic exercise in Christmas cheeziness…but I was also in that weird tourist high where my judgment was already screwed up by just becoming this walking consumer, grabbing bratwurst off the street, going through random cheese and chocolate shops that claimed to have “authentic” German products (they didn’t) but buying tons of stuff, anyway.
I was disoriented. But I needed to buy things.
Turns out, that’s what CHRISTmas at Bronner’s CHRISTmas wonderland is all about, despite what their capitalization tic might insist.
You see this place from far away. Or rather, you see the big ass Santa standing on a “chimney” steeple.
I should also note that there are a few main entraces to the campus (yes, campus). The building itself has two entrances that have to be designated by their compass orientation: West and South. But I kinda wish we had come from the west because the Santa that greets you in that entrance is way more…come hither:
He’s even cuter from the back:
The parking lot is so big that it requires extensive signage. We hit it at an off time, so it wasn’t hard to get around, but I asked one of the workers who said that there are times in December when people end up parking along the divided state highway that runs by it because there’s no room. I believe it. It’s hard to explain how massive the place feels just from the parking lot.
More about the outside later, but I wanted to get in. I had to see it. I had to act on this acquisitive drive I was feeling. On the way in, though, it started to get pretty clear that the store was really kinda…torn about its motives. I mean, this is basically an all-Christmas shopping super store. But everywhere you go, the CHRIST in CHRISTmas is in all caps.
There were also plenty of “patriotic” reminders that these folk wanted you to know they were a ‘MERICAN business.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But when you’ve also got the word CHRIST in all caps all around you (as well as countless nativities of all sizes dotting the parking lot…which we’ll get to), you get a vibe, is all I’m sayin’.
But the overwhelming vibe was just an explosion of Christmas, especially as we stepped inside.
I’m a cynic and skeptic and I scoff at a lot of holiday sentimentalism. But, I admit, I coulnd’t stop grinning like a little boy when I saw the lights, the trees, the sheer distance filled with green and red and tinsel and sparkling everything. It was awesome.
And it was also…extensive. See that sign that says “Section 1”? That’s section 1 of 15. And that whole thing is Section 1 — you’re not peeking at the edge of 2 or 3. In fact, when you walk in, the first thing you can grab is a map. And you need it.
My son and I prepared to get lost. My wife took off on a quest for presents and because she didn’t want to be around me as I had this ridiculous spiritual experience. My son had no choice. (Plus, he has a good eye for the odd…he’s been well-trained.)
The first thing to catch our eye was both odd and expected. It was up high. It was on the wall next to a portrait of Mr. Bronner. It was this:
Hard to miss: Santa kneeling by baby Jesus. And I spent a lot of time hoping I could find an actual ornament showing this in the store, but no luck. The place is so big, though, it’s much more likely that I simply didn’t see it.
But I don’t want to make fun of Mr. Bronner’s beliefs. The dude obviously loved Christmas more than most people, which means he’s one of my people. And there was even a nice big portrait of him right over one of the Ladies’ Restrooms.
But we didn’t dwell on it. We couldn’t. There was CHRISTMAS (ALL caps) to be explored. And explore we did.
The store was incredibly well organized for being so big. A lot of the pricier, collectors items were right inside the South entrance, where we came in: high end nativities, designer Santa displays, jewelry, and even an area with lots of choices of Santa clothing (both the old man and Mrs.). But what was cool was how much they tried to make the displays also be decorative themselves. I gotta admit…it was pretty magical.
What got me, though, was how certain items had so many more…options than you might expect. For example, you don’t usually think that you’ll need this many options for your 1/2 scale carollers. But Bronner’s will hook you up:
I pretty quickly found something I needed. Need is probably not strong enough a word. But I pressed on first. My son and I were on the hunt for the unusual.
It didn’t take long to find. Once you got past the highest priced specialty items, you hit the real bread and butter: the ornaments. And, oh my, were there ornaments. All categorized and organized. But to get, there we had to walk. I mean, check out how far this goes back.
And then you turn and go further to get to the main ornament section.
This is some serious Christmas. You know how Charlie Brown worried that Christmas was becoming “commercial?” This store is so far beyond that concern that we’re on a whole new level of commodification. It’s so much, in fact, that you can only dive in or leave. And I sure as hell wasn’t leaving.
So we started searching. There were all the usual things you’d expect: classy glass ornaments, tons of santas and angels, and on and on. But it didn’t take long before we started to find entire sections about things you wouldn’t expect.
I gotta admit that the “Memorial” section kinda freaked me out. It wasn’t the idea, it was the diversity of choices. And the fact that you could buy them in bulk.
And it just kept going. It’s too much to talk about all the variety. I’ll let the pictures do the work.
It was amazing. My son actually had a better sense than I did for what was going to be odd. At the same time, though, I didn’t find anything truly confusing, which was a shame.
So if I have any real criticisms of Bronners, it’s that they didn’t stock the truly “out there” stuff. No Krampuses, no stuff that was truly from a different tradition. And I get it, I guess. It’s in not-a-big-draw, Michigan, so there probably won’t be much demand.
What they did have, though, were elves.
Creepy elves. COOL, creepy elves. And they were the thing I saw almost the minute we walked in. And I knew I’d be spending more than wife would appreciate on one of them:
My wife found these guys terrifying. They’re by Mark Roberts who’s kinda becoming the Thomas Kincade of a bunch of holiday stuff…except for these guys. Most of the reviews still see them as scary and un-Christmassy, which means they’re pretty much made for me. And, yeah, I splurged and got one. Thing was, I had it down to two of them…and I had (and still have) this weird feeling that the one I didn’t pick would hold a grudge that I’d eventually pay for. So if the posts just stop one year, you’ll know why.
So we got a ton of other stuff, though. With all the niche topics, we were able to get those irritating small gifts for family and semi-close friends that always take too much time to find. But I also found plenty of small additions to my collection. And the clearance rack was fun, too. Especially the “Christmas Village” brand that had bigfoot and family.
But the place was closing, so we had to cut our visit a bit short. We spent some time wandering around outside, though, because the grounds were littered with nativity scenes of all sizes. There was one on a float that my incredibly bored younger son decided was a good place for Irish step dancing.
My older son took the opportunity to do a little Transcendental Meditation (TM) in front of another one.
We were about to leave when I noticed that, off the southwest corner of the campus, it looked like there was a small chapel. And it turns out that Bronner had in fact built a shrine to his favorite Christmas carol: “Silent Night.” You head that right. He built an entire chapel dedicated to a Christmas song.
This is a man I can fear and admire.
The walkway as you go up toward the chapel is lined with Silent Night’s lyrics written in a pretty impressive collection of languages. Each plaque had 6 versions on each side:
Unfortunately, the chapel itself was closed since we had come in the evening. But it looked both cheery and somberly sincere.
And there was yet another nativity outside. And my son, being mine, did his thing. Traditionalists will say I allowed him to be disrespectful. Traditionalists may well be right.
Sacrilege to the side, it was a wondeful visit. Part of me wishes it was weirder. I’d hoped either that it would be a bastion of just odd and crap-quality Christmas junk so I’d have fodder for mockery. But, no, it was mostly really good quality stuff. Or I’d hoped that it would be over-the-top sincere. And while Bronner obviously had his moments of CHRISTmas SERIOUSness, there was a lot of fun, too.
But in the end, it was good to know that a place like this can not only survive but thrive. We all need a spot that’s a haven for spending money on ridiculous, outdated and outmoded traditions. And I tithed quite a bit to my consumerist Christmas gods there. And that’s another reason why I don’t begrudge my kids not treating this place like the shrine it sometimes wanted to be. We know what we’re getting in to when we buy our Christmas. We know it’s a mix of the sentimental and the pious and the excuse to spend money we barely have. We know VERY WELL what we do.
In the end, this was my favorite picture of the whole visit. It captured so many things, both the ups and the downs. It’s appropriate to end with it. But I also think you should try to visit Bronner’s if you get the chance. It’s Christmas. It’s America. It’s Christian. It’s not even remotely Christian. It’s what Christmas is now, in its glory and its emptiness. It’s actually very, very real. And for that, I love it.
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